BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA
Director Damien Chazelle’s musical-arts drama, “Whiplash,” opens with a black screen. We begin to hear a snare drum playing slowly and softly. As the seconds tick by, the sound crescendos and becomes faster. It’s a way of preparing the audience for how the relationship between the student and teacher at the center of the story plays out.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a gifted, 19-year-old jazz drummer at the (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, who strives to be one of the greats. When his band class is visited by one of the school’s conductors, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), he notices Andrew’s talent, and invites him to be an alternate drummer for his jazz band. After the first practice, however, Fletcher proves to be ruthless, and Andrew realizes he’s going to have to work harder than ever to win the approval of his instructor.
Miles Teller is a superbly talented young actor, and he provides one of the year’s most painful performances. There is literally blood, sweat and tears involved with what Andrew as to go through, and Teller excellently displays the physical and mental damage of his character’s strive for perfection. It’s a mighty expression of what it means for his character to suffer for his art.
J.K. Simmons, like a sledgehammer smashing a glass window, shatters the screen as the tyrannical and verbally abusive conductor who rules his jazz band with an iron baton. For a film that’s not in the horror genre, Simmons makes Terence Fletcher one of the most terrifying movie characters of the year. The power of his performance will have you sitting frozen in your chair and will reduce you to a nervous wreck as you wait to see what he will do to put his students on edge. Even in his character’s calmer moments, you can sense his viciousness lurking underneath, and you’re always trying to mentally prepare for his next angry outburst.
The screenplay by Chazelle isn’t just a performing-arts drama about a talented musician trying to make it big, but is also a story that really dives into the relationship between the student and his conductor, a relationship that can be seen as both helpful and destructive to the pupil.
The story makes you question whether Fletcher’s teaching methods do more harm than good, a question that is especially brought to light in a scene shared by him and Andrew where the former explains his reasoning behind his abrasive teaching methods. It’s a film that belongs to Teller and Simmons as they present the ongoing confrontation between their characters, and you’re constantly wondering where their relationship is going to bring them.
Director Chazelle has the ability to film astonishing musical sequences, and there are two in particular that come to mind. One is where Fletcher has Andrew and two other drummers go through a grueling audition to see who’s a better fit to be the band’s main percussionist. The other is the last five minutes, which will give you one of the best adrenaline rushes of any film this year, but I won’t say anymore concerning that scene. Chazelle is capable of making these segments as intensely dramatic as the interactions between Andrew and Fletcher.
With “Whiplash,” Chazelle gives us an unyielding look at the fierce dedication and discipline that a young musician will show in order to achieve greatness, and it has the thunderous power of the banging of drums and crashing of cymbals.
Final grade: A